"They have made it so enticing to the kids," said Dumas Independent School District (DISD) Police Department Chief Larry Payne. He was talking about "vaping" or the use of so-called e-cigarettes, a practice that the Texas Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) says has risen from three percent of all Texas students in 2012 to 13 percent this year. According to the department, more than 330,000 middle and high school students in Texas have reported current e-cigarette use. Vaping, especially using a device made by Juul Labs that delivers a very high concentration of nicotine, has become a fad among young people. Increasingly, cases of vaping are turning up on DISD campuses.
"The way they are doing the marketing, the kids are fascinated by it," said Payne. "There is not much on social media that talks bad about vaping. You can get the different flavors, and you have those that have THC (the active ingredient of marijuana)."
So-called e-cigarretes are small, electronic devices with a heating element that burns a liquid concentrate and delivers nicotine,THC, and other substances to someone inhaling from the device. Though they have been marketed as a safe alternative to smoking regular cigarettes -- and the companies making them say they are marketed only to adults -- many health and addiction experts call them simply a "nicotine delivery system" designed to foster addiction, and, they say, they are anything but safe, especially for young people, who are especially vulnerable to nicotine addiction and other negative health effects, such as heart disease and interference in brain development, of the drug. In terms of the law in Texas, e-cigarettes are treated as other tobacco products.
"As we entered this year, we really hadn't thought that vaping would be a problem for us, but since school started August 14, we have filed 26 cases in Municipal Court for either being in possession, or we actually did have a case or two of someone furnishing a vape to a minor," said Payne as he held up a box of devices school officials have confiscated since August. Payne says most of the cases have been from Dumas High School and Dumas Jr. High, though one recent case came from Dumas Intermediate School (5th and 6th graders). Unlike other districts across the nation, Payne says all of the cases so far on DISD campuses have involved only nicotine.
The devices are small and harder to detect than regular cigarettes, but that has not stopped school officials from finding them or catching students in the act. Several have been caught on surveillance cameras. One student at DHS was even caught using a device while standing on a toilet seat in a stall of a boys bathroom by a teacher who happened to go in and smelled the device in operation.
Payne says school officials do press charges in every case they can. Students caught vaping also face school discipline.
Vaping or using tobacco of any kind on school property is prohibited by state law, and, as of September 1, 2019, state law prohibits the sale of tobacco products, including vapes or vaping materials, to anyone under 21. At the federal level, President Trump signed a law on December 23 raising the legal age to buy tobacco products across the nation to 21.
Having a vape with THC raises the legal stakes considerably. "That is actually possession of a drug rather than possession of tobacco," said Payne. While the trend in much of the country has been to relax laws against marijuana possession, in Texas, use of THC oil in a vaping device is a felony.
Health experts almost universally agree that vaping is an unhealthy activity and that the rise of vaping among young people is a cause for concern. That concern recently has been enhanced by an outbreak in cases of severe lung disease among people, many young, involved in vaping. According to DHS, there have been 287 possible cases of severe lung disease and 1 death in Texas. The Center for Disease Control reports that as of December 10, 2019, nationwide, there have been 2409 confirmed and probable cases of hospitalized lung illnesses and 52 deaths related to vaping. Most (more than 80 percent), though not all, of the cases involved vapes containing THC. Authorities suspect a chemical used to thicken the liquid THC is the culprit, but they are not certain yet, and they point out that people vaping are ingesting a number of chemicals that may or may not be safe.
Payne and other school officials are concerned by the rise of vaping on DISD campuses. He says he knows that if they have caught 26 students so far with vaping devices, the practice must be much more widespread among the student body than they had suspected. While enforcement will be the first line of defense, Payne says education and parental involvement will be key to dealing with the problem. He says the school intends to put together an education program for parents, students, and teachers. "Vaping has been around for a while, but a lot of people don't know how bad it is or how dangerous it is. We are trying to encourage parents to be more aware of what their kids are doing. They need to study the dangers and make sure their kids are aware."